Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: CAROL (2015)

This review appears in the booklet for Plain Archive's Blu-ray edition of the movie.




CAROL
Dir. Todd Haynes
Star. Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

America’s conformist postwar culture was filled with degrading, moralizing, and uniformly pessimistic portrayals of love between women. It was against this bleak backdrop that Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, later reprinted as Carol, became a lesbian culture phenomenon. Despite the public’s growing awareness of homosexuality and the expansion of urban gay and lesbian subcultures at the time, many women with same-sex desire still lacked knowledge about their own sexuality and connections to others like them. Carol is about two such women who struggle to find a space and a language they can utilize to express their emotions, with an ending that offered hope for female same-sex relationships then.

In putting Carol on the big screen, Haynes reconstructs a universal experience of falling in love in the conventional visual style. In Therese and Carol’s first encounter, first chat, first lunch, and first car ride together, he relies on the simple shot-countershot pattern to build sexual tension between them. But the specific setting of the movie—a big city of midcentury America—motivates spectators to decode the typical signs of sexual attraction shown here differently than they normally would while watching a heterosexual pairing. Indeed, in a social context where two people of the same sex dared not openly display their desire for each other, gestures such as prolonged eye contact are not just suggestive, but more critically, illicit. Besieged by the pressures of heteronormativity, Therese and Carol seek places where they can feel less intimidated to act on their desires. But those intimate spaces they manage to claim are always vulnerable to unwanted intrusions: Moderate camera distances from the women connote caution when an exchange of glances or a fleeting touch on the hand occurs; objects like walls and doors in the immediate foreground obstruct our complete view of the characters, constantly reminding us of their entrapment.

The vulnerability of the space occupied by same-sex lovers is also conveyed in the Ritz Tower Hotel scenes that bookend the film. In the narrative structure borrowed from Brief Encounter, David Lean’s 1945 melodrama about an extramarital affair, Carol opens with New York City’s nightscape as the camera picks up a man from the crowd, and follows him into the hotel. It is soon revealed that the center of narrative interest is not the man, but the women he greets. A variation of the identical situation unfolds near the end of the movie, but with significant differences in both cognitive and emotional aspects. By the time the scene is repeated, we have been clued in about the women’s past and become deeply invested in their fate. While the opening scene introduces us to the women through this random man, the later reunion scene begins with the women having possibly the last rendezvous, only to be tragically interrupted by the man’s off-screen voice. During the opening scene, our attention is quickly shifted away from the man as the camera closes in on the women. Then, after the reunion ends, the film transitions into a flashback showing the women’s winter affair from Therese’s point of view.




Carol inherits some of the essential tropes of the “woman’s film,” a category of specifically Hollywood productions targeting female audiences especially during the 1930s and 1940s. It addresses contemporary women’s issues from women’s perspective and delves into female consciousness. Haynes’s adaptation also draws on the nonlinear form evocative of 1940s movies to focus on Therese’s subjectivity. However, unlike the source novel, the film is not confined to this single character—it elaborates on Carol’s domestic life as an upper-middle-class housewife and a mother, though Carol is still observed through the prism of Therese’s self-redefining journey. Carol’s daily existence in her suburban home is often presented in frame-within-a-frame compositions that employ mirrors and walls. Such compositions regularly appear in Douglas Sirk’s 1950s Universal Studios productions and Haynes’s own Far From Heaven (2002), a tribute to Sirkian and, by extension, R.W. Fassbinder’s melodramas. In them, the female protagonist’s inner conflict propels the narrative, but there is an inherent powerlessness that she perceives and internalizes in the presence of social forces beyond her control. Unlike male-centric genres such as the western and the gangster film, the protagonist in the woman’s film is stuck in the domestic sphere and seldom allowed to translate her desires into action. Thus the melodramatic form, characterized by the inflated expression of characters’ interiority primarily through mise-en-scène, best serves so-called women’s stories.

Carol is also about Therese’s struggle to make sense of and articulate the feelings she develops for another woman. Therese’s life is detached from the lesbian subcultures that had begun to thrive in certain urban areas and she has never had sexual experience with women. Therese and her boyfriend Richard constantly use euphemisms like “that” and “those people” in place of homosexuality, gays or lesbians. Even if we assume she has heard of “those people” amid the government-sanctioned witch hunt of homosexuals, neither she nor Carol resembles the butch type the public would often associate with lesbians. Only after falling in love with Carol does Therese begin to recognize lesbians in public places, including a pair of butch lesbians in a record shop and a woman with whom she gets acquainted with at a friend’s party. Ironically, Therese’s lack of knowledge and experience emboldens her—during their first encounter, Carol seems the cliché predatory lesbian seducing an innocent young girl, but it is actually Therese who makes the first move and, later during their cross-country trip, suggests sharing a single hotel room. 

Back at the Ritz Tower Hotel, everything comes full circle; we see Carol face to face with Therese as they did in the earlier department store scene. Before reuniting with Therese, Carol has given up custody of her child after a divorce battle in which Carol is legally punished for her “conduct.”  Her decision to surrender is not to be construed as abandoning the child, though—as Carol implores during the divorce hearing, she is determined to quit living against her own grain, i.e. living the lie of the “happy marriage,” out of her profound and genuine love for her daughter. Meanwhile, Therese has her own moment of illumination when trading glances with the aforementioned woman at the party. It seems to transport Therese back to the earlier department store scene where she fell for Carol. The only big difference is that Therese now knows what that kind of attraction means, that there indeed exist women like her, and that she is one of them.

Current cinema no longer treats lesbianism as a taboo subject and lesbian audiences no longer need to read an illicit romance between man and woman as an allegory for their own, as many gays did while watching Brief Encounter decades ago. And lesbian characters can be more than a monolith of victims and martyrs; Therese and Carol exhibit none of the self-destructive tendencies of their on-screen predecessors, and Abby, Carol’s ex-lover and close friend, is more open and comfortable about her sexuality. Haynes’s Carol anticipates more cinematic lesbian romances set in postwar society that incorporate richer and more inclusive representations of lesbian love. At the conclusion of both the book and the film, Therese turns around and starts walking over to Carol. It is an ending all the more unforgettable because our protagonists, once and for all, take courage and give their love a second chance against all odds.







Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review: RUST AND BONE (De rouille et d'os) (2012)

This review originally appeared in the booklet for Plain Archive's Blu-ray edition of the movie.

dir. Jacques Audiard



Jacques Audiard’s favorite genre may be crime drama featuring flawed antiheroes, yet his best works are love stories, Rust and Bone (2012) and Read My Lips (2001), about marginalized women and men. Despite being ostensibly a two-hander, each tale is fundamentally the self-discovery narrative of a woman with a physical disability, who forges an unlikely romance with a hoodlum. Audiard directly associates the loss of bodily function with repressed desire, ultimately linking the unlocking of such desire to the protagonist’s symbolic rebirth. Subtlety has little place in the romances Audiard envisions. He draws on all the visual cues present in his scenes to accentuate the dominant emotions in them. It is not just an overt display of emotion, but the director uses the characters’ fluctuating states of mind precisely to shape the contours of his films.

Audiard’s melodramatic tendencies, evidenced by his fondness for alienated loners and for juxtaposing emotional highs and lows, inevitably privilege his heroine who’s literally lost a part of herself. Like Emmanuelle Devos’s ears and mouth in Read My Lips, Stéphanie’s (Cotillard) legs in fragmented close-up shots are a chief motif in Rust and Bone, making her story the film’s narrative spine. The earliest appearances of Stéphanie’s lower limbs unmistakably foreshadow the tragedy that soon follows; their later appearances—or their 20-minute absence and resumed presence (as prosthetics), to be exact—come at various stages of her rehabilitation and of her relationship with Ali (Schoenaerts). Naturally, most of the movie’s distinctively melodramatic moments belong to Stéphanie: the accident where she loses her legs is presented like a fantastic nightmare immediately following the festivity of the killer whale show; her point-of-view shots vividly convey the giddiness she feels as the sun dazzles her after she steps out of the pitch-dark room she has locked herself in.

The most intimate and poignant moment comes when Stéphanie, sitting on the veranda after her first sexual encounter with Ali, recalls her choreographed orca-show routine. For seconds, Audiard nearly mutes the scene and observes Cotillard in alternating close-up and medium shots, as she raises her arms, at first hesitantly, then a second time with more confidence. The outstretching and swinging of her arms, the energy emanating from those vigorous gestures, and finally, the same Katy Perry song that roared during her orca performance slowly rising in volume—all these combine marvelously to create one of Audiard’s truly melodramatic scenes. This scene is where, as Audiard said during his interview with the New York Times, “the dialogue becomes secondary,” as Cotillard’s acting redolent of the silent era shines through.

Cotillard’s facial features and performing style allow her to methodically represent the archetypal female in melodrama. Since La Vie en rose, a 2007 bio-pic of Edith Piaf by Olivier Dahan, the actress has often played women in crisis. Her portrayals of various women in different despondent situations have led her directors to compare her with her silent-era forebears. In the aforesaid interview, Audiard enthused, “she reminds me of a silent film actress. She is very, very expressive.” He is not the only admirer of the thespian’s style and grace on the screen. Her collaborator on The Immigrant (2013), James Gray once likened her to Lillian Gish and Maria Falconetti. Since her Oscar-winning role as the legendary singer, almost all the directors Cotillard has worked with succumbed to the temptation to film her like Gish in D.W. Griffith’s cinema or Janet Gaynor in Frank Borzage’s. Even the Dardennes, who generally eschew anything that borders on sentimentalism or so-called melodrama, exploited the inherently dramatic features of Cotillard’s face to pit them against the brothers’ typical detachment and restraint in Two Days, One night (2014).


Rust and Bone couldn’t exist without its lead actress, but it could never be the love story that it is now without Schoenaerts. While Cotillard takes on her role with dignity, which otherwise would have been yet another helplessly victimized woman, Schoenaerts, as he already convincingly did in Oscar-nominated Bullhead (2011), channels vulnerable masculinity without slipping into macho clichés. Schoenaerts showcases his ingenuity by constructing a complicated man who, though unable to articulate even most basic emotions, let alone his deep insecurities, assumes an attitude neither judgmental nor overly cautious or sympathetic towards Stéphanie. In Schoenaerts’s most effectively melodramatic scene, Ali discovers his son, Sam, has fallen through ice right after their joyous reunion, and the joy suddenly gives way to a sense of impending doom. But in another, and final, dramatic turnaround, Sam survives, bringing the three together as a new family. This last sequence is a fitting end to Audiard’s sun-filled melodrama about the woman and man for whom we come to deeply care. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

87th Academy Awards Final Predictions







Best Picture

AMERICAN SNIPER  (Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, Peter Morgan)
BIRDMAN  (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher, James W. Skotchdopole)
BOYHOOD (Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland)
GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL  (Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson)
THE IMITATION GAME  (Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky, Teddy Schwarzman)
SELMA  (Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner)
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING  (Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten)
WHIPLASH  (Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster)

Will win: BIRDMAN
Should win: Boyhood 



Director

Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Bennett Miller  (Foxcatcher)
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Morten Tyldum  (The Imitation Game)

Will win: Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman)
Should win: Richard Linklater 


Actor

Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”

Will win: Eddie Redmayne
Should win: Bradley Cooper


Actress

Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore in “Still Alice”
Rosamund Pike in “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”

Will win: Julianne Moore
Should win: Marion Cotillard / Rosamund Pike 
 

Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall in “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke in “Boyhood”
Edward Norton in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”

Will win: J.K. Simmons
Should win: Mark Ruffalo 


Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”
Laura Dern in “Wild”
Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game”
Emma Stone in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”

Will win: Patricia Arquette
Should win: Patricia Arquette 

  
Adapted Screenplay

“American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall
“The Imitation Game” Written by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice” Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything” Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle

Will winGraham Moore, The Imitation Game 
Should win


Original Screenplay

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
“Boyhood” Written by Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher” Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
“Nightcrawler” Written by Dan Gilroy

Will winWes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:  


Cinematography

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Robert Yeoman
“Ida” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
“Mr. Turner” Dick Pope
“Unbroken” Roger Deakins

Will winEmmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
Should win: Dick Pope, Mr. Turner


Film Editing

“American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash” Tom Cross

Will winTom Cross, Whiplash 
Should win


Costume Design

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero
“Inherent Vice” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran

Will winThe Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:

  
Production Design

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“The Imitation Game” Production Design: Maria Djurkovic; Set Decoration: Tatiana Macdonald
“Interstellar” Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
“Into the Woods” Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“Mr. Turner” Production Design: Suzie Davies; Set Decoration: Charlotte Watts

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Should win:


Makeup and Hairstyling

“Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White

Will winFoxcatcher
Should win:


Original Score

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat
“The Imitation Game” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Should win:


Original Song

“Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”
Music and Lyric by Shawn Patterson
“Glory” from “Selma”
Music and Lyric by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn
“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”
Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”
Music and Lyric by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again”
Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois

Will win: Glory (Selma)
Should win:


Sound Editing

“American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
“Interstellar” Richard King
“Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro

Will win: American Sniper
Should win:


Sound Mixing

“American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley

Will win: American Sniper
Should win:


Visual Effects

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Erik Winquist
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner and Paul Corbould
“Interstellar” Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer


Will win: Interstellar
Should win:


Documentary Feature

“CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
“Finding Vivian Maier” John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
“Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester
“The Salt of the Earth” Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
“Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Will win: Citizenfour
Should win:


Documentary Short Subject

“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
“Joanna” Aneta Kopacz
“Our Curse” Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
“The Reaper (La Parka)” Gabriel Serra Arguello
“White Earth” J. Christian Jensen

Will win: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Should win:


Foreign Language Film

“Ida” Poland
“Leviathan” Russia
“Tangerines” Estonia
“Timbuktu” Mauritania
“Wild Tales” Argentina

Will win: Ida, Poland
Should win:


Animated Feature

“Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
“The Boxtrolls” Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
“Song of the Sea” Tomm Moore and Paul Young
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura

Will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Should win:


Animated Short Film

“The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
“The Dam Keeper” Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
“Feast” Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
“Me and My Moulton” Torill Kove
“A Single Life” Joris Oprins

Will win: The Bigger Picture
Should win:


Live Action Short Film

“Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
“Boogaloo and Graham” Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” Hu Wei and Julien Féret
“Parvaneh” Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger
“The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas

Will win: The Phone Call
Should win:


Sunday, January 11, 2015

72nd Golden Globes Predictions


An oft-felt sentiment particularly at this juncture of the Oscar race is that suddenly the whole thing seems a foregone conclusion. Right now, there's no stopping Boyhood from nabbing the top honors; Michael Keaton's "feels good to be back home" speech at the Gotham Awards will very likely repeat come Oscar night; and Julianne Moore will finally ascend the podium as a winner. Surprises will probably be nonexistent, though pleasant ones like Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl would be very welcome. The lack of suspense notwithstanding, hope remains for the show itself as the power couple Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler reprise their hosting roles. Anyway, here's my predictions:




Best Motion Picture, Drama

Boyhood
Foxcatcher
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything

Predict: BOYHOOD 



Best Actress, Drama

Jennifer Aniston (Cake)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Predict: Julianne Moore 



Best Actor, Drama

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
David Oyelowo (Selma)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Predict: Eddie Redmayne 



Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy

Birdman
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
Pride
St. Vincent

Predict: BIRDMAN



Best Actress, Musical or Comedy

Amy Adams (Big Eyes)
Emily Blunt (Into the Woods)
Helen Mirren (The Hundred Foot Journey)
Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars)
Quvenzhane Wallis (Annie)

Predict: Amy Adams



Best Actor, Musical or Comedy

Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Bill Murray (St. Vincent)
Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice)
Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes)

Predict: Michael Keaton



Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year)
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Predict: Patricia Arquette



Best Supporting Actor

Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Predict: J.K. Simmons



Best Director

Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Ava DuVernay (Selma)
David Fincher (Gone Girl)
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Predict: Richard Linklater



Best Screenplay

Birdman 
Boyhood
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game

Predict: Gone Girl



Best Animated Feature Film

Big Hero 6
The Book of Life
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Lego Movie

Predict: The Lego Movie


Foreign Language Film

Force Majeure
Ida
Leviathan
Tangerine Mandarin
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

Predict: Ida



Original Score

Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game)
Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything)
Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross (Gone Girl)
Antonio Sanchez (Birdman)
Hans Zimmer (Interstellar)

Predict: Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game



Original Song

Annie
Big Eyes
The Hunger Games: Mokingjay Part 1
Noah
Selma

Predict: Selma



Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT (Deux jours, une nuit) (2014)

Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne



It’s rare that the weakest of female characters makes such a strong on-screen presence as Marion Cotillard’s Sandra in the Dardennes’ latest film. Earlier this year, in James Gray’s The Immigrant, Cotillard performed as another beaten-down woman seeking a sense of purpose. Neither film necessarily offers a most uplifting story about women, but there’s a certain perceived assertiveness to the actress’s embodiment of those characters. In this unsentimental tale of solidarity and self-worth, the lead star glibly switches between desperation and shame, timidity and fortitude.

The conceit is that, under a time constraint, Sandra carries out a door-to-door canvass to keep her job, which will cost her colleagues a bonus. It’s a streamlined narrative, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is a clear-cut me-against-them sort. While the film borrows its dynamism mostly from Sandra’s varying responses after pleading either on the phone or on the doorstep, what really infuses it with potent humanism are the diverse personalities and circumstances the co-workers contribute. During her first call, we only see Sandra reacting to what is being said on the other end of the line. Framed in a seemingly disinterested medium shot, Cotillard manages to channel reluctance and mortification her alter-ego feels without making overt gestures. From then on the directors incrementally increase the other employees’ visibility, pitting Sandra against not some vaguely defined enemy but fleshed-out humans. With the help of the brothers’ exactingly-timed cuts and nuanced shifts in camera distance, as well as the actress’s keen instinct for drama, Sandra’s emotional displays are well modulated. The negotiations largely occur in lengthy, distant two-shots, but the Dardennes allows for close-ups when refusal hits her hard, or when an affirmation puts a smile on her face.


With heartless (and almost faceless) corporate types pushed to the margins—literally, in the opening and close—of the story, the film’s politics aren’t so thickly veiled, but its social engagement feels modest without pompousness. It’s not only one of the year’s best, but it has the best performance of the year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: GONE GIRL (2014)


Dir. David Fincher

***Major spoilers ahead***




“This man of mine may kill me,” reads the last entry in a missing wife’s diary. Suspicion descends on the husband, but when he realizes it’s the wife’s sickening ploy to punish him, he begins the fight back. Gone Girl is about a battle of the sexes taken to a whole new sickening level, and it excels at black comedy, among the many genre masks it dons. Wife and husband compete for the favor of judging spectators, and the camera often swaps between the two parties separately doing interviews on cable television and those watching and responding to it. But the film hardly cares if exactly the right balance exists between them especially in the severity of the harm they face. Whoever wins doesn’t expect to get cheers, though the psychopathic one will obviously inspire much more aversion and fear than the merely lazy, cheating, moronic one ever could. A controversial yet wicked farce by Gillian Flynn, it rather revels in the asinine proceedings of a trial of marriage under this diabolic woman’s thumb.

In David Fincher’s usual slick hands, a desolate Missouri suburb—in which Amy Dunne rouses the latent fervor of gossipy tongues and blood-sucking media—gains a plastic countenance. Neighbors’ homes are spaced apart just enough to remain at once private and watchful, while the Dunnes’ dollhouse is a bit too grandiose and glossily furnished for a cozy home. Adding to this façade are Amy’s diary flashbacks, which rebuild the early parts of the Nick-and-Amy fairytale on a softened, sweetened urban land. Her velvet voice intermittently dishes out a mixture of truths, half-truths, and lies, all the while in the (relatively) real world, the couple’s anniversary ritual of treasure hunts mutates into the whole town’s organized search, and then into a national pastime of finger-pointing.

The searches and Amy’s narration alternate and coalesce in a way that turns everyone within the movie against Nick, though for us audiences outside of it, the wife’s complete victim status isn’t so convincing. Our knowledge of outcomes of the investigation (as Amy intended) and the history of the couple’s relationship (as Amy fabricated) builds up piecemeal. Static shots and quick cuts typical of Fincher’s style impel us to take in a discrete bit of information from each shot. This sort of data pickup process is a corollary of a heightened version of continuity editing, which reinforces the immediacy of each individual shot and its impact on the characters involved and viewers alike. In an interrogation scene, for instance, where the detective Rhonda grills Nick with his lawyer present, it’s all a constant snappy to-and-fro of shots each containing a single line/question or a single reaction/answer. Unsurprisingly, the rhythm of the scene recalls the dialog-heavy depositions in The Social Network. In fact, a few—and long by Fincher’s standards—two-shots in a bar conversation, in SE7EN, between rookie and veteran that make their dynamic feel less mechanical with varying camera distance and more breathing room, are kind of a rarity in Fincher’s works. But as in the case of The Social Network, the director’s M.O. admirably fits Gone Girl’s wryly staged, nippily-paced narrative.





So after all this ruckus of phenomenal proportions, who wins the battle? It’s both tempting and, for some, disturbing to call out the wife’s name. This truly evil ‘psycho bitch’ doesn’t receive the sort of judgment meted out to her forebears 20 to 30 years ago. Alex, for one, from Adriane Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, is a single career woman—thus damningly flawed by society’s yardstick—whose villainy gets subsumed under her married lover’s trajectory of restoring his perfect home as crystallized in the movie’s final close-up shot of a family photo. Suzanne, another blond psycho bitch from Gus van Sant’s To Die For, gets buried under a frozen lake as punishment for killing her husband who found her career aspirations undesirable. The point is not that these villainies themselves are excusable, but that these female characters are created in their respective stories specifically to represent the vices that must be suppressed to reinstate certain putative virtues, i.e. patriarchy. In Flynn’s story, though, Amy doesn’t let Nick get to win; Nick has miserably failed in the role assigned to him when he made his vow, so Amy bends him to her demand that he return to his place.

Then, is hers a feminist triumph? Not really, but the same answer applies to the question whether the movie is misogynistic. Distorted representations of women in film or in any other medium have always been, and still are, a pressing problem, and Gone Girl got a lot of flak for its portrayals of women, as well as the scenes where Amy utilizes the rape and domestic violence myths. Granted, Margo, Nick’s twin sister, despite being one of the strongest female characters here, resembles Suzanne’s sister-in-law, in that both are essentially the honorary males who supposedly offer the voice of reason, as opposed to the irrational female villains their brothers marry wrongly. But, given that all the characters operate on a pretty much surface level only, what you also get here is a diversity of females. When, after returning home, Amy relates her cobbled-together saga of survival surrounded by the feds, it’s only Rhonda, the female detective, who seems to see through the lies, while the male officers are mostly busy white-knighting and smoothing things over, instead of digging for the truth.

Amy’s tactics of using the egregious myths have understandably led to accusations of misogyny. Her strategy, however, also makes her perhaps the worst nightmare materialized particularly for peddlers of those myths, let alone ordinary viewers. Think of male psychopaths in sardonic tall tales who commit a variety of transgressions; they’d be regarded as pure evil, nothing more, nothing less. Amy, too, is exactly that—an evil mastermind who leverages the most horrendous methods to execute her grand plan and gets away with murder. Nick is a perfect match for her, since, for all his fatuousness, he eventually comes to his senses that his own narcissism can subsist only when there’s a woman like Amy willing to stroke his ego. A recession may have emasculated him a little, but this marriage must go on for the aforesaid reason. For Amy’s part, she isn’t a quitter, as she says at the end of the movie, and as long as she maintains authorship over her own Amazing Amy fairytales, her marriage will stay intact.



Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: FREAKS (1932)



Dir. Tod Browning



Hollywood’s transitional period from silents to talkies witnessed many talents either adapt and evolve or recede into oblivion, and it was also when Tod Browning, often touted as a trailblazer in American horror film, spawned fantastically reimagined productions that owed their enhanced nightmarish effect greatly to the coming of sound. An experienced carnival sideshow performer himself, Browning populated his wonderland with troupers, eccentrics, pariahs, and as in the case of his best-known work Dracula (1931), monsters. Spearheading the 1930s surge of gothic horrors, the Bela Lugosi star vehicle bears the discernible influence of the Expressionist style and often encloses the characters in surroundings indicative of operatic grandeur. In some of those theatrically staged scenes, certain long shots inside the castle or abbey look like simplified storybook illustrations.



Compared with this fanciful romanticism, Freaks (1932), which sparked such outrage it nearly wrecked the director’s career, feels less mythical, yet equally eerie, and definitely more intimate. Like his previous silent The Show (1927), it shines a spotlight on circus actors and their backstage lives. In both cases the central conflict is motivated by greed, but Freaks carries a stronger whiff of melancholy and greater moral import. Framed as a once-upon-a-time flashback, the story begins with a casual tour into the offstage array of circus wagons. During this, Browning takes a snapshot of each member showcasing their distinctive faculties, without caricaturing them. Having enlisted real-life “freaks,” he pits their physical deformities against the moral degradation of able-bodied antagonists, while condemning the latter. Here, indeed, the code of freaks is the norm transgressed by these antagonists, for which they pay the price—with a beautiful acrobat getting tarred-and-feathered into a shriek-inducing creature.


The tide turns during the scene of the wedding feast for the acrobat Cleo and Hans, the midget she’s after for money, where the circus’ peculiar individualities are all gathered in one place and pose a perceived threat to the scheming duo, Cleo and her strongman lover. The alternating close-ups of the woman and Hans’ friends as they chant “We accept her” are at once bone-chilling and weirdly poignant. From there, Browning builds an increasingly ominous mood by doling out close-up shots of the freaks spying on the newlywed poisoning her husband. When the drama climaxes in a collective act of vengeance or defiance, it’s perhaps one of the most unforgettable, most effectively executed outbursts that the history of horror film has ever seen.